wed 24/07/2024

Britain's Great War, BBC One | reviews, news & interviews

Britain's Great War, BBC One

Britain's Great War, BBC One

Jeremy Paxman embarks on the war to end all wars

Paxman needs you

Harry Patch may have finally answered the summons of the last bugle, but there are still those whose memories run all the way back to the war to end all wars. Violet Muers, 106, was in the firing line when the German navy crept up on the east coast of England and unleashed hell on Hartlepool. A century on, she lucidly recalled the bangs going off in the night.

“Me older sister said, ‘I think somebody’s beatin’ the carpets.’” Jeremy Paxman sat in her front room, enthralled by the bonny voice of another England.

The most recent attack on these islands was recorded in the Bayeux Tapestry. The task of recounting the First World War has fallen not to weavers but to a scourge of politicians. Anyone hoping to satisfy their curiosity about such niceties as who started it and all that will need to look elsewhere – possibly in the fiery broadsheet correspondence sparked by Michael Gove’s blue-sky thoughts on patriotism and leftwing propaganda. Britain's Great War offers history as effect rather than cause: it tells of the impact on the people of decisions taken by their rulers.

Scottish postmen resigned their jobs rather than be the bearers of dreadful news

Appropriately for a news man, Paxman began with the bongs of Big Ben, and the tolling of the bell which counted down to the declaration of war in August 1914. We soon found him striding along on the white cliffs above Dover where the first defensive trenches were dug, and surveying the terrain at Mons in Belgium where the minuscule British army took a fearful spanking, necessitating Lord Kitchener’s astonishing recruitment drive of a million young men. There is wonderful film footage and photography to illustrate these tidal movements: of crowds massing in front of Buckingham Palace; men queuing to sign up; best of all, the new army, not yet in uniform, training in gym kit and cloth caps with broomsticks for rifles.

Is Paxman the man for the job? His surname (although it invokes the Latin for peace) is now a byword for scorn, but with the wind in the right direction he is able to configure those features into an attitude of empathy and sorrow for the coming slaughter. He reserved his derision for the Hun as, in a German accent, he read out a satirical postcard from the Kaiser to the King.

Aside from the remarkable Violet Muers, there was only one interview, with someone captioned as Julian Kitchener-Fellowes. Don’t be fooled by that frothy moustache of a double-barrelled disguise. This is Lord Fellowes of West Stafford, descendant of the great general whose finger pointed at a generation of men and summoned them as cheerful cannon fodder. Without the lord and creator of Downton, no programme about the Great War is nowadays complete.

Interestingly, as Scotland considers voting Britain out of existence, Paxman snuck north of the border to invoke an image of the Union as it then was. The 11 players of Heart of Midlothian volunteered en masse, an example taken up by football fans previously seen as not up for the fight. A Scottish wife fell under the train bearing her husband away to war when she refused to let go of his hand. Scottish postmen resigned rather than be the bearers of dreadful news.

Another presenter would have made another programme, which may have been better or worse but would certainly have been different. Someone else would have quoted more primary sources, and mentioned the powerful propaganda tool of Captain Scott’s heroic self-sacrifice in Antarctica. Paxman’s pick and mix carefully avoids the benefit of hindsight to portray an island race unsure if it is a state of euphoria or shock.

Just for balance, would the BBC consider a documentary called Germany’s Great War?

With the wind in the right direction Paxman is able to configure those features into an attitude of empathy and sorrow


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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Actually there was at least another interview towards the end with the great-nice (or something like that) of the two brothers who died and had their memorial service together with the captain. She's the one who says "I wonder what they would make of all this talking about them... I'm sure they would be proud...".

You're quite right and I stand corrected. I fear that piece of testimony didn't quite lodge in the memory.

I found it quite moving actually... Oh well, it's all very personal I suppose.

I agree with the comment above. I found myself welling up more than once as I was watching this documentary. Very nicely handled. Balanced. Beautifully researched and put together. I even liked some of the music they used, which I rarely do.

Mark, You wouldn't happen to know who made the music for the series, in particular the opening credits? Beautiful music and I would love to be able to buy it.

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